Milton’s Satan: Analogies and Culture

When David M. Potter wrote his book, The Impending Crisis about the politics and social forces in the lead-up to the American Civil War/War Between the States, most educated people had read Milton’s Paradise Lost. Potter, describing the “great triumverate” of Henry Clay, Danial Webster, and John C. Calhoun, described Calhoun as “the greatest champion of error since Milton’s Satan.” Potter could do this, knowing that everyone reading his book would understand the reference. When I first read the book 15 years or so ago, all the grad students in the seminar got the reference, because we’d either read it in high school (me) or in undergraduate English classes. Or out of curiosity (the Marine. That’s when I discovered that the guys in Southwest Asia read anything that didn’t try to flee under its own power.)

Today, if I wanted to assign the book, I’d probably also have to copy Satan’s speech from Paradise Lost and have the students read it as well. No one, outside of a very few charter and private schools, reads things like Milton in their entirety in high school English. Or almost their entirety. When I went back as an adult and read the unexpurgated epic, I found all the anti-Catholic, anti-Church of England bits that the HS edition omitted. The point being, the cohort behind me in the schools likely doesn’t know the story, or Milton’s character, and why Potter made the comparison. Knowing Calhoun, he’d be flattered, based on what I’ve read of him. (Andy Jackson would probably say that Potter gave Calhoun too much credit.)

When given a choice, to the surprise of a number of college administrators, undergrads ask for Great Books courses. You know, Aristotle, Plato, Milton, Adam Smith, Machiavelli, Mary Woolstonecraft, Dante, and others of what is sometimes called “The Western Canon.” Over the years I’ve gone back and filled in gaps, sometimes discovering as I did with Milton that what stood out as a teenager and what I catch as an adult are rather different. The students want to know the references, the meaning of analogies, and where ideas and culture came from. This is unwelcome among many administrators, because 1) it requires faculty who know their stuff and know the Great Books, and 2) there are a lot of Dead White European Males in the list. There are no federal awards or grants for Great Books courses. The very fact that the DWEMs are Frowned Upon by the Establishment is part of the lure. If you ban it, they will try to read it, just for shock value. Like a student I had who showed up with a copy of Mein Kampf. I congratulated him on taking on the task, and assured him that no, there are no good translations. Hitler needed an editor. The student later admitted that the book was, on the whole, rather boring and repetitive. (As one of my colleagues said, “Wait till he gets to On Capital by Marx. Then he’ll really know what boring means.”)

Seventy years ago, everyone who would have read Impending Crisis at least had a passing knowledge of Milton. Today? I’d be happy if an undergrad confused him with Milton Friedman. There was a common culture that is fading, or being eroded. “Great Triumverate” “Milton’s Satan.” Those references are slipping away, with a lot of other things. We lose them at our peril, because reading Satan’s great monologues gives such a perspective on the people who have that mindset today. Old Scratch really did have all the great lines.

Show Museum or Teaching Museum?

A re-post about museums and their purpose.

You probably can tell without my saying much that I am a sucker for museums. Art museum, science museum, history museum, folk-life museum, botanical garden, I’ll probably at least poke my head in to see if it looks promising. I’ve been very, very fortunate to be able to visit, and re-visit, many of the great art and history museums north of the Alps, like the Kunsthistorischesmuseum [Art History Museum] in Vienna three times, the Gamäldegalarie [painting gallery] in Berlin twice, and a few others, like the Louvre (twice over two days. Don’t bother with the southern art section, IMHO). Continue reading

Reading along the Danube

Since I can’t go to one of my favorite parts of the world, I’m digging out all the books I bought about it but never got around to either finishing, or in a few cases starting. That most of them are auf Deutsch helps kick me out of my usual habits as well, and stretches the Little Grey Cells.

The first one I started is a “popular” summary of post-Roman settlement in Roman sites along the Danube, from Caernuntum (downstream of Vienna) up to the mouth of the Enns River. I put popular in quotes because although it is a summary of a lot of archaeological and historical work, the author expects readers to know the basics of Roman and Dark Ages/Late Antiquity history and of archaeology. It provides an excellent summary of “what happened after Rome left?” Or more specifically, after the official presence of the Roman Army along the Limes ended after AD 488 CE.

Thanks to Gibbon and other historians, English-language histories of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire left readers with the assumption that after Odoacer removed Romulus Augustulus from the imperial throne in 476, people abandoned everything, rolled up the sidewalks, and reverted to Neolithic levels of material and intellectual culture, outside of a few tiny, trembling pockets of civilization. Per Gibbon et al, Western Europe remained in the dark until the 1000s, and even then, well, it wasn’t as good until after 1500 when the Renaissance and the Return of the Classics re-lit the lamp of civilization. “Gothic” as in medieval was, ahem, excess emotion and primitives gawping at the simple grandeur that had been Rome and Greece. *Sniff of disdain*

If your only sources are written documents, and most of those that are not religious guides or things like herbals and devotional works are laments for “how things were back in the Good Old Days before the barbarians besieged my monastery,” or “Rome’s terrible sins let in the barbarians. Discuss,” well, your view of the period between 410 and 800 is going to be rather skewed. Especially if you ignore the Byzantine Empire, which English writers tended to do (too chaotic, too decadent, too far away.) There are not that many written sources from the Dark Ages/Late Antiquity unless you really start digging in monasteries, or digging in Medieval ruins and read the inscriptions. Which no one did until the 1950s (!) No one was interested in post-Roman stuff. Now, credit where it is due, archaeologists didn’t have a lot of the tools and techniques that have made so much post-Roman work possible, and digging under cities tends to be expensive and frowned upon by the neighbors. Especially if it means tearing up streets and sewers. Or going through people’s basements.

Which is partly why historians missed the clues that people had not vanished, and neither had Roman places and cities. Some were abandoned, true, because without Rome’s strength, and because of a major climate downturn, they were no longer safely habitable. Others were too open, and on the line of march for, oh, almost every Germanic, Slavic, and Steppe group that wandered through Europe between 410 and 1200. Others were rebuilt but with wattle and daub, not stone (London), and that doesn’t last the way stone does. Or people incorporated the Roman stuff into medieval stuff, or built over it, and the academics didn’t know what happened to sit under this town, that palace, or the church over there. Unless you go hunting spolia and know what to look for. Roman sites made great quarries for structural stone and column capitals once people got to that point. (I love strolling along and going, “Hey, that’s a Roman grave marker tucked into the church wall. Oh look, there’s part of a mile stone. Cool.”

The Danube valley has been occupied by humans since the Paleolithic. It’s one of very few east-west communication routes, and provides a route between the Alps, the Bohemian Massif, and the Carpathians. Caernuntum was the point where the Amber Road, the trade route from the Baltic to the Med, crossed the river. Wels was another crossing point. Vienna marks the eastern tip of the Alps (the Vienna Woods are foothills of the Alps.) Rome used it as a border north-south (the Limes) and drew provincial borders from it. To this day, several of the political and episcopal divisions in the area are Roman. They lasted through: Bavarians, Slavs, Avars, Franks, Magyars, the Babenbugs, and the Habsburgs. Roman ruins appear in basements, were incorporated into city walls and gates, provided material for churches and castles, remained in pastures until the late 1800s, and so on. In two cases, people moved out of the city or military town completely, rebuilding higher or back from the hazards of the river. Archaeologist love those locations, because they don’t have to worry about digging under towns, or trying to reconstruct where the town and the Roman town diverged. Vienna kept Vindobona’s street plan and wall outline, as readers have heard me rhapsodizing over far too often. 🙂

The more I learn about the period of 410-1100, the more fascinating it becomes, and the more I want to read and then explore.

Monday Musings

I’m going to be away from the computer for a while. Yes it is vacation time. No, I’m not leaving the CONUS this year. I was supposed to. The British government put a stop to that (not that the US State Department is helping.)

I won’t have reliable internet, so any comments in moderation will be checked, let us say, sporadically at best. There will be a post every other day or so. Some are re-runs, most are new.

Y’all have fun and don’t work too hard while I’m away.

Those Who Don’t Know History (or Linguistics)

So, the tempest-in-a-teapot this week is a teacher of pallor announcing that she will no longer teach Spanish. This will help “decolonize” the language and empower students to take back their heritage. Or something. Apparently only people of non-European ancestry speak Spanish. And Spanish did not originate in Europe. Or something along those lines.


The former-teacher has a right to not teach, for her own reasons, and a right to follow whatever political philosophy she wishes. She does not have a right to change the history and structure of a language to suit how she believes the world to be, or would prefer it to be. Spanish, in all its dialects, comes from a blend of Latin, Visigothic, Berber, and Arabic. The country of Spain, when last I checked, was still attached to the European continent. The men and women (but mostly men for a long time) who introduced Spanish (and Portuguese) to the Americas and Africa would be appalled, amused, or enraged to be informed that they were not of European ancestry. There was a reason for the Casta charts and rules about marriage.

It’s been a heck of a week for language departments getting into the news. Princeton University’s classics department announced that it will no longer require Classics majors to learn Latin and Greek in order to major in the Classics. They can do all their coursework with translations of the texts. The stated goal is to make the course more friendly for “students from previously underserved communities,” as the academic euphemism phrases it. Already critics of the idea are pointing out that if you don’t read Latin or Greek, you can’t teach Latin or Greek. You can’t read new-to-you texts. You can’t read works that have not yet been translated into your native language. So you will have a very hard time getting a job in the field. Graduate work in Classics, outside of Princeton, will be impossible. I leave the implication that certain populations can’t learn to read Classical Greek and Latin on the floor. For generations of seminarians from all over the world to use as a soccer ball.

If you were to argue for a modern-language major using only translated texts, you’d get thrown out of the university (or high school for that matter.) A German major who can’t read or speak German? A Slavic-Studies major who reads no Russian, Polish, Ukrainian, Czech, Slovak, or Serbo-Croatian? Get real. Not happening.

When you work with other languages besides your mother tongue, part of the process is learning the history of the language, how it came into being, what its roots are (to a certain point), and why it works the way it does. There are ideas and phrases that “don’t translate.” There are grammar structures that don’t appear in unrelated languages (English and Hebrew, or English and Hungarian, or English and . . . ) There are loan-words that don’t fit (Czech has a lot of Germanic and Latinate bits). You can’t rip a language out of context, once you get past a certain point in learning it.

Yes, today there are more Spanish speakers out of Spain than inside of Spain. I can understand why someone without a good background in the language, or who learned Spanish in Mexico or parts of Central and South America, would act as if the language originated in the Americas. And that only people from the Americas, especially people of Mestizo ancestry, are real Spanish speakers. And (I suspect) in the former teacher’s view, only Latinos/as should be teaching Spanish, because they are the only real Spanish speakers and only true carriers of Spanish-language culture.

It’s the same argument that bubbled up in academic history decades ago. “Only women should do women’s history. Only Native Americans should do Native American history. Only military veterans should do military history.” In which case John Keegan could never have kick-started military history into a very broad discipline that goes far beyond battles and beans. And who would write environmental history? Or ancient history (OK, that’s easy – archaeologists claimed that one a century ago, spoil-sports.) I don’t like the theoretical constructions* currently required in “women’s history,” thank you. Let me see the documents, see archaeological materials and dig reports, and them make my own conclusions, please? I’d rather do environmental or military, or even economic history.

I’m more mutt than German, but I speak and read the language pretty well. I speak OK Spanish, and can survive in a few other languages even though I don’t belong to those cultures. I can parse some Greek if it is written with Latin characters, especially theological Greek. (Heck, I can even suss out a lot of theological, Greek-letters Greek if I have some English or German context around it.) I hit a wall with Russian, but that had as much to do with how it was taught as with the language.

Tl;dr: Anyone who wants to learn a language should do it. If they want to teach it, and can do it well, more power to them. And watering down the class doesn’t help anyone.

*I don’t like theories-of-history in general, even though I read them and use them when necessary.

When Boats go Boom

Technically, when their cargoes or environments go boom. If a ship spontaneously explodes, it generally has run into something explosive, or a long-standing problem (fuel vapor/fuel leak) reaches criticality.

A link to a comment at the Daily Timewaster Blog led to a “No sheep, there I was” story about an incident I vaguely remember from July 1990. The inspiration for the story is a GIF of tanker cars imploding because someone didn’t stop pumping at the proper moment (or possibly a rapid temperature change leading to creation of a vacuum.) The incident is the Arco Lyondell fire near Houston. Now, although it seems like the industrial side of Houston turns briefly bright and loud on a regular basis, that’s not really true. It just gets lots of media coverage when Pasadena or something on the Ship Channel decides to have an exothermic moment.

There are two other ship-based explosions in North America that came to mind when I read the account linked above. The first is the Halifax explosion in 1917, when an ammunition ship “Mont Blanc” and the relief ship “Imo” collided in the Narrows in Halifax, Nova Scotia. It was the perfect location for the worst possible effects from the blast because of how the land channeled (pun intended) the force of the explosion. The city was leveled. When I was three and a bit, my folks and I went to the Maretimes and New England, and one of the few things I remember is a museum display of the stopped clock and the wreckage of the city.

With lots of family in the “oil bid’ness” back in the 1930s-70s, the Texas City disaster echoed slightly in family lore. Several of MomRed’s uncles worked on or around the cargo terminals and ship yards in Houston and Texas City, and when the “Grand Camp” blew up with a whole lot of fertilizer on board in April 1947, several of the uncles were close enough to feel the shockwave. MomRed heard the boom, although she didn’t know what it was until later. Eighteen hours later, an ammunition shop that had been ignited, the “High Flyer” also exploded. Since the first blast had killed a lot of firemen and destroyed the equipment, the second round finished everything the “Grand Camp” had left standing. Or so it seemed at the time.

There have been other explosions and fires in merchant marine history, and things like the Piper Alpha rig accident. But whenever I read about fires in ports, I always think back to Halifax and Texas City. Barges are amazing, and cargo freighters are magnificent ships. But when things go wrong, well . . . There’s a reason for the saying that “Safety Regulations are Written in Blood.” The real rules, the serious rules, the “break it and die” rules are there for a REASON.

Please Stop Giggling, Choir.

The lector began reciting the opening invocation. Half the choir started vibrating, trying not to chuckle, or sing.

“How lovely is Thy dwelling place, O Lord of Hosts! My soul longs, even faints, for the courts of the Lord. My soul and my body cry out for the living G-d.”

Now, two-thirds of the choir are struggling mightily not to hum the melody we associate with this text. (Psalm 84). Or recite the next verse in German.

One of the basses, who plays in the university orchestra, is discreetly mimicking the cello line as his compadres labor not to start laughing.

Psalm Eighty-four is not intrinsically amusing. What’s going on?

Brahms. Too many of us have sung Brahms’ German Requiem too often not to hear the most famous movement in our minds’ ears.

Flags in the Fog

A storm line rolled through Sunday night- Monday morning, washing my part of town with an inch and a quarter of rain in about two hours or so. It had passed well to the east by 0500 (when the cat woke me up the first time). The dewpoint and the air temperature were both at 54, so fog developed. Very thick fog. Visibility of one half block fog. Which did not stop the people setting out flags for Memorial Day.

I set out for a stroll at 0645. Visibility had improved to one block, with a north wind making the flags slap and flutter. That was all I heard, that and my own steps. The usual dull background rumble of traffic wasn’t audible. Birds fluttered, a very few, but they stayed silent. I had not heard that kind of quiet since the last heavy snow. Normally seven AM means a decent amount of traffic, especially in summer when people are going to work early so they can get done before the day’s heat builds in. Not on a holiday Monday with thick fog and water-logged ground.

The world faded in and out of grey. It was weather to cheer a goth’s heart – dim, misty, quiet, impossible to sunburn in, animals and houses appearing and then disappearing as I passed. I walked from flag to flag, watching them wave in the water-rich air, spots of color on a cloud-dark morning. The air smelled of wet wood and water, clean and rich. One or two cars rumbled past, but that was all. The world was mine, mine and the flags’.

Flags lined the main street through my neighborhood. They also lined side streets, what I could see through the fog. Flag flaps, footsteps, one sleepy bird, a distant dog . . . The rustling pitter of lingering raindrops knocked off of trees by the morning wind. Otherwise quiet, a rare quiet. An appropriate quiet for a dark, somber morning.

By eight, dog walkers had begun emerging, and a few more cars moved, but very few. The usual background noise remained so quiet that I wondered if some of the underpasses had a bit too much water in them, and the police and highway department were diverting traffic. The heavy storms might have kept some people from leaving early, as well, or led them to start long-distance travel later. It was not the morning to be on I-20 between Abilene and Ft. Worth, or I-40 or I-35 anywhere in Oklahoma. Too much red and yellow bloomed on the radar to make driving fun.

My part of the world? Quiet. Resting. In some cases easing out to check the damage and see what the previous two days hail and tornadoes had battered. The rain came hard enough that our roses got stripped of their petals, and many drooped, thin stems bent from water weight. A lot of pollen had washed off the roof, carried a yard and more away from the downspout. Snails crept along, fair game for DadRed and I to send flying into the street or alley. I checked a few plants, tossed a few snails, and observed no new damage to my pickup.